Virgin Galactic — billionaire Richard Branson's space tourism company — has agreed to charter its new private spaceliner SpaceShipTwo, to NASA for research purposes.
Under the $4.5 million deal, NASA engineers, technologists and scientific researchers will make up to three flights on the SpaceShipTwo, an air-launched spacecraft designed to carry eight people on trips to suborbital space, the company has announced on its website.
Check out this spectacular video of the SpaceShipTwo in action:
Earlier this week, Virgin Galactic announced also announced that the former deputy chief of NASA's now-retired space shuttle program, Mike Moses, had joined the company as vice president of operations.
Moses will, according to Fox News, work out of Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic's base for its "commercial suborbital spaceflight program" in New Mexico. The company is slated to dedicate its headquarters at the spaceport this coming Monday (Oct. 17).
Virgin Galactic's statement about the NASA deal read:
This arrangement dramatically increases the access researchers currently have to space. Each mission allows for up to 1300 lbs of scientific experiments, which could enable up to 600 experimental payloads per flight. Virgin Galactic will provide a Flight Test Engineer on every flight to monitor and interact with experiments as necessary, a capability that has never before been available on suborbital vehicles. If requested, these experiments can be quickly accessed after landing, a feature critical to many types of experiments.
George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic, said that previously, space "research opportunities have been rare and expensive."
He continued: "At Virgin Galactic, we are fully dedicated to revolutionizing access to space, both for tourist astronauts and, through programs like this, for researchers."
(GlobalPost reports: Not a giant leap)